Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) – movie review

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Movie Review by Mark Bayross

Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Vivica A Fox, Lucy Liu
Director: Quentin Tarantino

The fourth film from Quentin Tarantino is anything but straightforward, but then would you expect anything less from this viscerally exciting director? While his “duck press” approach of distilling the cultural influences that have made such an impression on him into an electrifying, ultra-hip whole is still very much present (right down to Bruce Lee’s GAME OF DEATH yellow and black tracksuit), there is little of the quotable snappy dialogue that made PULP FICTION so enjoyably re-watchable.

Nonetheless, this still has pure Tarantino class running through it. From the genuinely shocking opening scene, through an array of stunning set pieces and onto the much talked-about climactic sword battle at the House of Blue Leaves (a movie moment guaranteed to join the annals of the classics), KILL BILL VOLUME 1 delivers in spades.

The story is a simple one, at least for this first Volume, as Uma Thurman’s pregnant character, known only as The Bride, is ambushed and left for dead on her wedding day by the very gang of elite assassins of which she used to be a member, the DiVAS (or Deadly Viper Assassination Squad), commanded by the titular Bill. Waking from a coma four years later, her unborn child gone, she is understandably aggrieved, and wastes little time in tracking down each Viper in turn and exacting bloody revenge, leading her on a blood-strewn path to Bill himself.

As now seems traditional with Tarantino, he plays around with the chronology from the off: the film begins proper with The Bride paying a visit to the second Viper on her list, Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox), an encounter that runs the gamut from bone-crunching violence, through black comedy and culminates in a moment that touches both brutality and humanity. Tarantino’s time-bending has outdone itself here – whereas the end of PULP FICTION occurred two thirds in, here it’s in the opening chapter.

But from there on, we are whisked back four years to that fateful wedding day massacre and the start of the adventure. Each chapter unfolds as a different set piece, from The Bride’s partly comedic, partly shocking escape from her coma bed; through her Luke-seeking-Yoda-style trip to Japan to seek out the legendary sword-maker Hattori Honzo (played by the equally legendary Sonny Chiba) and that final, exhausting battle.

Along the way, Tarantino adopts a variety of dazzling visual and editing techniques: scenes flip from colour to black and white; the camera swoops up to the ceiling and down under the floor; people speed up and slow down; and in one jaw-dropping sequence, the entire background story of first Viper O’Ren-Ishii (Lucy Liu), from her parents’ brutal murder to her transformation into the cold blooded killer destined to become the head of Tokyo’s yakuza, is told in full QT-directed anime.

Uma Thurman is a one woman wrecking crew throughout – you can see why the director put the whole project on hold for her when he found out she was pregnant. She embodies the strength and athleticism of a trained killer with the fury of someone who has endured one wrong too far and will stop at nothing to have her vengeance, but she never deviates from her strict code of honour, tracking down each adversary to their home turf and challenging each to a final fight.

As everyone knows, Tarantino is a master of cross-pollinating different styles and genres, and the fact that he has created his own style in the process – and after so few films – is truly impressive. But nowhere has he fused genres so spectacularly as here – yes, this is his grindhouse samurai (and in Volume 2, kung fu) revenge movie, but it is accompanied by a soundtrack that evokes a mix of 70s cop show funk (courtesy of the Wu-Tang’s RZA) and Italian spaghetti westerns (a conceit that will pay off once The Bride tracks the rest of her quarry back to Texas and Mexico in Volume 2).

And this is where we’ll find Bill – a character dreamed up by the director as far back as “Pulp Fiction” and for which he has enlisted another 70s icon, “Kung Fu”‘s David Carradine. For the duration of Volume 1, Bill is an omnipresent foe, but one whose face we tantalisingly never see. Likewise, the other two Vipers, Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver and Michael Madsen’s Budd, make but cameo appearances here, adding to the curiosity of when and how they will be dispatched in the second instalment.

The director has also stated that this film is his first not to take place in the real world, and as such, there is a dreamlike quality throughout. Perhaps this also accounts for the intense nature of the violence – limbs, heads, eyeballs and lots and lots of blood fly through the air – the House of Blue Leaves fight, in which The Bride takes on no less than 88 masked sword-wielding assailants is awash with so much claret that Tarantino had to switch the scene to black and white.

In terms of thrills and spills, KILL BILL VOLUME 1 definitely justifies all the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. The waiting, the budgetary wrangling, the lengthy fight training, the crippling eight-week shoot for the House of Blue Leaves, and the last minute decision to divide the film into two and re-edit it with a cliffhanger ending, have all created a film that stays with you long after it has ended.

However, it is the first half of the story, and as such, does have the feel of a scene-setter before the second, apparently fuller (and more dialogue-driven) Volume gets under way. Yet it is still must-see cinema, and of all the questions asked by this half, the most pressing one must surely be, “can you wait for part two?”

6 out of 6 stars